A Surfeit of Sources (or, Historian Hoarders)

urlOne might think that given the proliferation of recorded material available to the historian today that the task of history is made easier. Everything is recorded, everything is saved, we can compile terabytes of data on a disk smaller than a human hand. So, to know the causes and effects of the Vietnam War, one only need access the data.  Not so, says historian John Lukacs,

The fantastic and overwhelming proliferation of typed and printed material may suggest that the successor of the aristocrat is not the democrat but the bureaucrat . . . The very number of libraries multiplies alarmingly: it has become recently an American national custom for former Presidents or for their descendants to sponsor entire libraries the contents of which would consist primarily, if not exclusively, of the “materials” relating to the few years of their national administration. In addition to the standard kind of “documents,” the contemporary historian must consider an entire array of new “sources”: magazines, films, photographs, phonographic recordings, oral-history tapes, teletypes, etc. These developments are self-consciously applauded by historical associations. I, for one, cannot share in these pompous and circumstantial expressions of joy: at times I am tempted to wish that there were a long-term moratorium, forbidding the erection of presidential, indeed, perhaps of all new libraries. My reason for this impious desire is simple: the quantity of historical “material” has already become unmanageable. (Historical Consciousness, 54).

Put simply, there is too much useless information for the historian. We are a society of information hoarders. We cannot distinguish between valuable information and trash. Does the Library of Congress really need to archive the entire contents of Twitter? And this is but one example.

This is a moral problem. We can no longer judge what is important and so we throw everything into a pile and call it “precious.” We have a mental disorder that cannot judge diamonds from diapers. We cannot distinguish information from knowledge.

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